Faith Kim: Innovative and Democratic Course Design

I was one of three fourth-year undergraduate students in the fall 2020 iteration of ARTHIST 590R. As an art history major, I enrolled in the course because I saw that learning about traditional and novel art-historical methods would support the development of my senior honors thesis, “Monumental Interplays: How Virtual Encounters Affect Understandings of the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park,” funded by two Emory undergraduate research grants and based on some uncommon sources for art-historical research, for example, Google Earth. The seminar covered conventional theoretical frameworks and research methods as well as the origins of art history by way of content analyzing the discipline’s white supremacist limitations. At times it introduced me to fresh ways of thinking about the exclusivity of the art-historical canon and other systemic inequalities in the discipline and its institutions. In other instances, the course offered opportunities to elaborate on aspects of issues already familiar to me.

Most notably, the course gave students the opportunity to envision innovative, equitable possibilities for the discipline of art history. Our final assignment was to design a semester-long introductory art history course suitable for twenty-first-century scholars. In conceptualizing a syllabus for a class of my own, I reflected on course structures that were most conducive to my own learning during college: syllabi that promoted new knowledge, cultivated my ability to challenge ideas with evidence, and equipped me with necessary skill sets to ask and answer probing research questions.

In general, discussion-based courses in which I engage and critique arguments with my peers are most effective for me. Lecture-heavy courses, on the contrary, tend to leave me focused more on the memorization of easily searchable facts rather than prepared to ask and answer questions about art. They also create academic hierarchies in which I as a student am a passive receiver of information rather than an active participant in learning. Since I am interested in promoting more active learning, I excluded lectures from my syllabus entirely. I also designed my introductory course not as a survey but as a thematically structured syllabus covering topics ranging from the politics of citation to inequities in the art museum to art that engages with pressing social injustices of our time. Ultimately, I designed the course to reflect a twenty-first-century undergraduate student’s potential social and political interests.

I recalled other aspects of courses that I found beneficial and included them in my own syllabus design, including a reading response format similar to one Gagliardi employed in ARTHIST 590R. Each week in ARTHIST 590R, students engaged closely and critically with assigned materials before the class meeting. We submitted analytical responses that addressed the assigned materials along with five probing questions to engage with as a group during class. I viewed the format as especially inclusive of peers’ input, ideas, and perspectives. Pedagogically, I considered this mode of learning satisfying: I frequently found myself analyzing dense or long texts, thinking critically about the politics of art history, and supporting my ideas with evidence. Students’ analyses and questions propelled the activities, making the discussions particularly compelling. The other students and I discussed the information and ideas from the course material that captivated our attention, and the professor served mainly as facilitator. The course was student-centered in terms of the generation of discussion topics, and it was also student-driven in that discussions emphasized students’ voices most. I found these two aspects of the course empowering and highly democratic, and I included analytical response assignments on my own syllabus to foster the same kind of empowering and democratic learning environment.

I also decided to emphasize discussion in my course design through the inclusion of midterm discussions called Art Circles. The Art Circle format is one that my collaborator Margaret Nagawa and I developed in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Art Circles provide individuals with opportunities to discuss a topic in small groups such that every participant has an equal amount of time to share their thoughts and contribute to shared knowledge. The ultimate goal is for each participant to gain something new from each Art Circle experience. The structured discussion format, equity-forwarding protocols, and community guidelines foster a respectful, full-participation setting for the dissemination of knowledge and ideas. At each Art Circle, organizers of the discussion ask each participant to be fully present in the discussions by avoiding any other distractions, to withhold judgment from peers, and to go out of one’s comfort to share about a topic, even if they, she, or he are not an expert. I decided to utilize such a discussion format in my syllabus to combat the hierarchical, passive learning approach that lecture-style art history survey courses tend to foster.

For the content of my proposed course, I worked to identify socially and politically relevant topics in the twenty-first century. I hoped to dispel the misconception that art history and art may be too lofty or “niche” to matter in the “real world” and to benefit from artists’ critical, insightful perspectives through which to understand the complex world. I found myself most empowered to enter the post-college world when I learned about artists and art that shed insight into issues including race, power, gender, and class across time and around the world. In addition, I wanted to include in my course design content explicitly addressing inequities of the art-historical discipline in museum hiring practices, the curatorial world, or the discipline’s white supremacist origins. As I see it, burgeoning art historians should be aware of such dynamics from the very beginning of their journeys in the discipline, and attention to inequity should inform practice, research, and ways of navigating art history. The content of my course includes readings that cover topics such as the historical whiteness of museum spaces and staff, ethical principles in art history, and artworks and artists that I think offer insightful and critical perspectives on pressing social issues in contemporary society. I imagine that this kind of content would appeal not only to individuals directly associated with the discipline but also people focused on other areas of inquiry who take art history courses to fulfill their own curiosities and interests.

For the introduction to this three-part article, click here. To read Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi’s contribution, click here; Chelsy Monie’s contribution can be found here; and for the conclusion click here.